Friday, May 12, 2017

Election Law Changes Part 3: Changes for Auditors and Campaign Staffers

In part one and two we looked first at the ID provisions, then at cuts in early voting, and other election law changes that will affect average voters. Today we’ll look at items that, while certainly of public interest, mostly affect auditor’s offices and campaign staffers.

The big item for auditors will be the post-election audits. Random precincts in random counties will have to do a hand count of president or governor.

I understand that a lot of people find voting equipment very interesting. I’m not one of them. I don’t have a problem on principle with post-election audits, though I find equipment paranoia in general very silly. But there are a couple problems with the bill as passed.

The original bill had a reasonable audit timeline in February. That wasn’t good enough for the equipment geeks, whose real agenda is hand counting all ballots. After the incident in Dallas County, which broke right when the bill was progressing, there was probably no hope for an auditor-friendly deadline. The thing is, Dallas County was NOT a problem of equipment; it was a problem of people failing to report totals to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State failing to catch it. (It was also a failure of the campaign staffs, political activists, and press for failing to catch it.)

So instead the audit deadline is a VERY tight 21 days. One of which is Veteran’s Day so you either lose a day of work or you lose a holiday. There is still a LOT of post-election data and maintenance and physical cleanup going on three weeks post-election. And I know my rest and physical comfort is a low priority – and I didn’t choose this career without looking on it as service to the public. But three weeks post-election us grunts are still catching up on sleep and laundry and maybe hoping to take a long delayed day off to stretch the Thanksgiving break.

And I’m sorry not sorry, but machines count better than people. They don’t get distracted. They don’t get tired – and poll workers less than three weeks after a general election are tired. Inevitably there will be discrepancies, and those discrepancies will be because the people, not the machines, made mistakes. And just as inevitably people will get their facts wrong and scream “fraud!”

I also don’t quite trust the “random” selection of counties and precincts, and will bet a beret that the first precinct audited will be the Johnson County absentee board. Yes, the whole absentee vote of a county is considered a “precinct” under this section, so we could be hand-counting tens of thousands of ballots.

Also interesting: the bill specifies that audit observers are representatives of the “two largest” parties – one more way that the Libertarians, despite finally succeeding after decades of effort in getting “full” party status last year, are still somehow less than fully equal.

At a Friday training for auditors and staffers, there was a lot of concern and confusion from auditors about audits and the tight timeline. "Have you thought about how to explain this to the public?" asked Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. "The public has been screaming for audits," deputy Secretary of State Carol Olson asserted. "Not in my experience," Miller replied.

As a minor benefit to auditors, the law adds a fourth week to the previous three weeks either side of a general election in which other special elections are not allowed.  But those kinds of votes were rare and usually small anyway. The nightmare scenario of a major school bond a month after a presidential election is barred anyway under HF566 which combines city and school elections and also limits the days those governments can have special elections. (Technically, this bill is not yet signed, but there's no reason to expect a veto.)

There are also various paperwork and certification requirements which seem relatively minor:
49.128 Commissioner filings and notifications.
1. No later than twenty days following a general election, the commissioner shall place on file in the commissioner’s office a certification that the county met the following requirements at the general election:
a. The testing of voting equipment was performed, as required under section 52.35.
b. The election personnel training course was conducted, as required under section 49.124.
c. Polling places met accessibility standards, as required under section 49.21.
d. The schedule of required publications was adhered to, as required under section 49.53.
e. The commissioner has complied with administrative rules adopted by the state commissioner under chapter 52, including having a written voting system security plan.
Most of this is documenting stuff we do anyway.

But the bill includes other demands on counties and infringements on local authority that seem designed to boost the “fraud” numbers and thus provide fuel for the next, even tougher version of vote suppression.

For starters, Paul Pate can go on a fishing expedition through local files:
“The state commissioner may, at the state commissioner’s discretion, examine the records of a commissioner to evaluate complaints and to ensure compliance with the provisions of chapters 39 through 53. The state commissioner shall adopt rules pursuant to chapter 17A to require a commissioner to provide written explanations related…”

Gee, what counties will he look at first?

Auditors and county attorneys already look at individual cases and determine what’s a legitimate problem. But this allows a Secretary of State to come in, fling poo all over the place, and leave the locals behind to clean up. As Nixon noted, the retraction never gets as much attention as the original charge.

County attorneys are also now required to report back to the secretary of state on Election Day registrations whose follow-up mail is returned as undeliverable. This is to boost the “fraud” numbers,  and seems to be aimed straight at Johnson County.

At present, auditors simply send a letter and make the voters inactive. These so called “bounce-backs” (we call them something else) caused controversy when Pate’s own staff recommended against using his puffed-up statistics. The problems are almost always primarily postal. The issue isn’t “fraud,” it’s merely missing apartment numbers and post office boxes.

There’s also an earlier deadline for mailing out confirmation notices to EDR voters. The old deadline was 45 days, now it’s 21. In Johnson County, we had more than 5000 EDRs in 2016, probably more than any other county, and had all those cards mailed within two weeks. So it should be do-able, though it might be hard if we also got hit with an audit of our absentee board - one of the concerns auditors expressed Friday

There’s a few requirements on timelines and deadlines for campaign staffers. None of them are as draconian “courier” law that was in effect through the 2004 and 2006 cycles, but they seem designed to produce minor insignificant slip-ups that can be blown out of all proportion. I don’t even see the point of making an absentee request received AFTER the request deadline a Rush To The Auditor thing.

More substantively, registration forms must now get turned in within a week, or within 24 hours if it’s within three days of the pre-registration deadline. For absentee requests, the law stays the same, 72 hours. The holiday weekend problem didn’t get fixed: If a staffer gets a request Friday night of a three day weekend, it’s more than 72 hours before the auditor’s office will be open to accept it.

That’s pretty much everything that happened with election law this session. In tomorrow’s conclusion, which is unfortunately the shortest part, we’ll see what thank God did NOT happen.

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